Take One Shot, Get Multiple Subjects

I read in the papers recently that a sniper, tasked with protecting the President of France, accidentally fired his rifle into a hospitality tent, injuring not only a waiter and but also one of the guests. His Inspecteur Clouseau-style achievement did not go unnoticed. Getting two people with one shot was remarkable — and hard to do, whether using a gun or a camera.

When I succeed in getting two or (even better) three or four subjects into the frame at the same time I feel very satisfied. It’s just what street photography needs: the sense that a lot of significant things are happening at the same time.

The word “significant” is important because it’s no use merely to include bystanders who contribute nothing to the picture. They have to be doing something recognisable, even if it’s only inspecting an artwork, like the man on the left of my featured image (above). By himself he would be of no account, but add the girl peeping out behind the taxi rider, together with the boy who is glancing back over his shoulder, and suddenly you get a complete scenario. It’s late afternoon on Charoen Krung, the oldest street in Bangkok.

Incidentally, don’t worry if my image looks a bit “Indian.” This area of Bangkok has long been an outpost of Indian culture, even though most people on the street are the usual mix of Thai and Chinese.

When you start getting multiple subjects in one shot you’re definitely on the final volume of the street photographer’s guidebook. I’d place it alongside concepts like “layers” and “multiple decisive moments,” both of which I cover or intend to cover in this blog. However, if you’re just starting to do street photography, please don’t look exclusively for this type of shot. Begin with one subject and build up from there.

Another Example

Here’s another example, one that’s more easily obtained because the subjects have not been caught in dramatic poses. The four figures are, however, nicely spaced — which separates them so that we can see each one has a distinctive personality of her own. The shopkeeper of the Chinese funerary goods store hovers discreetly in the background while the four customers respectfully browse the wares.

Had the customers been all bunched up and overlapping — as they usually are in photos — the image would be less successful. As it is, we can see unrelated strangers from three generations, all of them concerned about holding ceremonies for the wider family which includes those who have passed. The kaleidoscopic colours are every bit as solemn as the greys and blacks of European mourning — and so easily misinterpreted by westerners.

Useful tip: if you shoot in black and white it’s probably best to avoid this subject.

On a few occasions I’ve come across multiple subjects that were too far apart to get into the same shot. That can be very frustrating. For example, while taking pictures of a very small temple that was entirely enclosed by tree roots I suddenly noticed a man walking past with a large poodle in a shoulder bag — and beyond him a monk leading a water buffalo into the compound of another temple. I eventually got all the shots, but alas, each one is separate from the others.

Finding a Strategy

You’re probably going to ask me how to devise a strategy that will allow you to get several subjects into one shot. There no sure-fire way of doing it; you just have to be patient.

With the featured photo (at the top of this post) I always had in mind an image that included the piece of sculpture on the left. I was hoping to snap pedestrians as they drew level with it, thus getting them in sharp focus along with the sculpture. By chance, traffic emerged from the side street and one motor-bike was obliged to swerve around another, giving the impression of heading straight for the camera. In fact, I was standing safely on the sidewalk and the bike was obliged to turn on to the main road — or else leap the kerb and run me over (as the passenger seems to anticipate).

Here’s my final picture (below) to illustrate the topic of “multiple subjects with one shot.” I call it “Incident at the Flower Market.”

The man and woman on the left have a lively dispute or perhaps they’re sharing a joke. Whatever they’re doing is of no concern whatsoever to the woman sitting in the red chair. She’s calculating something, pen in hand, and looking out of the frame to the right. Her gaze helps to pull the viewer’s attention towards the centre, which is just what I wanted to achieve.

Although she’s not stepping forward and speaking (like the man) or reacting with incredulity (like the woman in the centre), the woman in the red chair with her intensely blue apron and wine-coloured cardigan is both the quietest and loudest figure in the photo. She sits silently but her clothes and chair shout out loud to us. In this sense, although she’s not part of the action, she’s one of the main subjects of the picture — perhaps the most important one. Fortunately, she doesn’t upset the composition, being within a brightly coloured context of dozens of flowers.

It Must Work As a Whole

When you succeed in getting several subjects into one shot you still have to make sure the picture works as a whole. Admittedly, our art form is very forgiving in the sense that people don’t expect compositions to have the monumentality of, say, a Raphael painting, where every figure is precisely positioned. It’s even OK to allow the frame to cut a figure in two if the rest of the composition hangs together. But a satisfying image can never be a jumble of activity, like a frame taken at random from Google Street View.

The task of the street photographer is to distill order from chaos, to make clear what may be unclear to the inattentive eye, and to preserve moments in time recorded from the photographer’s unique viewpoint.

Ultimately, the success or failure of your composition with multiple subjects depends on the balance you achieve between the separation of those subjects and the unity of the image.


When Your Street Photo Has More Than One Decisive Moment

Forget the fuss about “layers” (receding planes with subjects of interest in them). If you want to engage in virtuoso street photography how about taking up “multiple decisive moments”?

As everyone knows, “The Decisive Moment” was the American title of the 1952 book by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The French title, “Images à la Sauvette,” means images taken hurriedly, or “on the sly” — candid images, if you will.

The book contained 126 photographs made between 1932 and 1952, among them some magnificent portraits and distant landscapes that could have been taken at another moment and still have been as good.

Yet it’s not Cartier-Bresson’s portraits that made the biggest impact on photography. It was his action shots, especially the iconic one of a man about to step into a large puddle of water behind Gare Saint Lazare.

The idea of freezing a moment and making it seem in some way significant brought out the best in photography. In fact, it’s what photography does better than any other art form. Painters may achieve a similar effect (like Titian with his “Bacchus and Ariadne“) but you know he’s had to do it laboriously by drawing an outline and filling it stroke by stroke with colour. By contrast, the camera’s shutter snatches the actual moment, tears it from the flux of time and enables it to live forever.

Now we come to the question, how long is a decisive moment?

In Cartier-Bresson’s most famous image it cannot be more than a tiny fraction of a second. His subject’s foot is barely a centimetre from the surface of the water. There’s quite a lot of motion blur in the figure, indicative of the briskness of the man’s movement. So let’s say the moment lasts for a hundredth of a second, maybe less.

I have a second question. What are the chances of taking a photograph in which there are not one but two or more decisive moments occurring at the same time? Will they still be decisive in the sense of seeming to be significant? Or will they confuse the eye and create a disturbing conflict within the image?

So many questions! I’m sorry about that, but we’re now veering towards the extreme edges of street photography where the entire process becomes a white knuckle ride.

For example, in my featured photo “Transaction” (above) I show some people buying food at a market stall. On a busy day, Bangkok street sellers behave like newsagents in New York — they serve more than one customer at a time. The woman in the yellow tee has just paid for her goods and the man is letting go of them (Decisive Moment One). As she begins to turn away she notices my camera and grimaces (Decisive Moment Two).

Meanwhile (there’s more!) the vendor is accepting notes from another customer at the bottom left of the frame (Decisive Moment Three) while the customer gestures with his forefinger and makes a comment (Decisive Moment Four). All these moments seem to combine into one decisive “super-moment” — a bit like those super-volcanoes with lots of vents, each capable of spewing out pure energy at the same time.

I’ve looked through my pictures to see if I can find some similar shots but there’s nothing that comes close. Maybe these multiple decisive moments are truly rare. I have plenty of crowd scenes, like the one below, in which various people are caught mid-gesture as they walk quite rapidly outside Charing Cross station in London. Yet their gestures are perhaps too subtle and too distant to be of real significance in the photo. Let me explain.

At the centre of the image three people are walking in different directions. They are perilously close to each other yet none of them seems the least bit worried. They’ve already calculated each other’s speed and direction and have no fear of collision. The girl in the micro-shorts places a protective hand on the bag that hangs from her right shoulder. In exactly the same way, the man in the purple tee protects the Canon camera slung from his left shoulder. Meanwhile, a girl in a butch leather jacket puts her arm around her friend’s neck as the two of them head off towards the Strand.

In this picture everyone is caught mid-step, except for the man looking at the second-hand goods on the right. Again, the whole image is a super-moment, but, like so many others, composed of micro-decisive moments rather than any of real significance.

I think there is still potential for developing street photography, even though eighty years or more have elapsed since Cartier-Bresson was first experimenting with decisive moments. One way we can move forward is to put ourselves in situations where significant moments occur frequently. However, you need to be close enough to the action so that two or three instances will be prominently featured in the image.

One further word of explanation: it’s not sufficient to photograph, say, a football crowd in which everyone is cheering in a slightly different way. They’re all cheering for the same reason, so it’s essentially the same moment. What I have in mind is when people are on different trajectories, when each frozen movement seems unrelated to the others, despite their proximity in space and their sharing of the identical moment of time.

If my concept of “multiple decisive moments” taken with a single shot seems contradictory to you, I can only say it’s my recognition that everyone carries their own time with them. Sometimes, separate moments from separate lives occur simultaneously.

From now on, I’ll start looking out for them. When I get another one I’ll let you know.

What Is Street Photography?

I have to begin by asking: what is a “street”?

Clearly, the sidewalks of New York, Chicago, Paris and Beijing are places where you can practice what everyone would agree is “street photography.”

If you visit London and walk down a covered street such as Burlington Arcade that, too, would be a place where classic street photography is possible.

If a covered street is OK, then how about a mall? And if a mall, then what about inside a shop or an underground train station?

How about on board an ocean-going cruise ship? Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas has shops, cafés and bars, not to mention a “Coney Island-style boardwalk” and an area called Central Park with 12,000 real shrubs.

You see, the terms and definitions of street photography are not as obvious as they first appear, even when they relate only to the possible locations where this kind of photography can be conducted. When we start to consider the style and content of the resulting photographs, the definitions become even more blurred.

The Impromptu Portrait
Let’s say you’re walking down the street, camera in hand, when you spot someone sitting against a wall. The light is great, the colours perfect — say, multiple shades of brown — and you take a shot.

The trouble is: the guy is looking down and you can’t see his face. What do you do? You can walk past and find another shot. Alternatively, you can speak to the subject (as I did, for the photo below) and say: “Hi, the light is so good here I just have to take a picture.” He beams at you and you get a beautiful street portrait that’s perfectly composed because you had time to do it.

But is the posed street portrait really an example of genuine street photography?

What about all those shots that people take during “Fashion Week” in London, New York or Paris. Amateur and professional photographers alike find rich pickings when they take pictures of stylish visitors going to and from these events. Extrovert fashionistas are willing participants and the photographs in which they appear look all the more cool for showing them out on the street rather than at some indoor event where outrageous dressing is commonplace.

You can take a narrow view of street photography by insisting that it has to be done outside on the street, with people who are unaware of your presence and therefore unable to adjust their appearance to suit the camera. Or you can take a broad view and allow everything: including interior locations and posed shots.

A Personal View
I like to photograph in malls, shops, stations, or any place where people go about their business, but in my serious work (not impromptu portraits like I’ve just discussed) I’m strictly kosher when it comes to candid versus posed.

I share the aesthetic of art critic Michael Fried who emphasises the tradition in Western art of depicting people who are absorbed in what they’re doing. As soon as the presence of the photographer disengages the subject from his or her ongoing activity the result is a fake, theatrical image. It’s an image in which the subject plays to the camera, destroying that instrument’s unique capacity for objectivity.

A Broader View
Do I enjoy looking at other people’s impromptu street portraits? Yes, I do. I wouldn’t necessarily exclude them from an exhibition of street photography. The genre needs to be as broad as possible, but not so broad as to be meaningless.

For example, take the work of Anders Petersen, a photographer who talks and interacts with his subjects to achieve work that has a remarkable intimacy and impact. His approach has to be valid in a broad context, but it’s not one I personally wish to pursue. It invites the viewer to collaborate in the invasion of the subject’s privacy. I think it lies on one of the extreme boundaries of street photography: the one where content dominates form, perhaps to the detriment of both.

With or Without People?
Can we say that a photograph of a deserted street really belongs to the genre of street photography? Surely not. It’s just a street. If it has a distant figure or two…well, maybe.

In its most concentrated form — in what I might call “hardcore street photography” — our art form is all about getting pictures of people as they walk, run, chat, scream, snarl, fight, linger or hurry along the city streets.

Without people you’re left with nothing but their ghostly traces: posters, cigarette ends, discarded packaging, street furniture and the built environment.

Arriving at a Definition
Are we there yet? No, I don’t think anyone will ever define street photography with perfect precision, certainly not without taking a narrow view of it.

Here’s the closest I can get. It’s photographing strangers in a public environment in order to create meaningful or aesthetically pleasing images.

Even this broadly inclusive definition has its faults. What about images taken from the street that peep into people’s private homes (Arne Svenson)? What about your own reflection (Vivian Maier)? Or your own shadow (Lee Friedlander)? What about taking people in their cars (Óscar Monzón)? What about photographing strangers at a pre-appointed time (Shizuka Yokomizo)?

Here’s another definition. It’s just candid photography! That’s not too scary, is it?

Using Contrasting Content in Street Photography

In these blog posts I’m often talking about form rather than content, that is to say: composition, shapes, colours, depth, and the overall look of the picture as opposed to what’s actually being represented. I truly believe that form is significantly more important than content in street photography, whereas the opposite is true in photojournalism.

However, if you concentrate too intently on form your work will tend towards abstraction and you’ll find yourself no longer the heir of Henri Cartier-Bresson but one of the distant followers of the painter Kandinsky. Pure abstraction, surely, is the province of painting rather than photography.

One way to approach street photography is to look for contrasting content. This is fairly simple to do, although personally I don’t hunt for contrasts, I just seem to stumble upon them. You can do the same.

Here’s one example (shown above). I was walking down a major thoroughfare in Bangkok called Yaowarat Road when I spotted these two tourists intently studying a map. Standing behind them was a man in uniform — who looks at first glance very like a policeman, but is, in fact, a security man who works for the hotel.

I like the stark contrast between the casually dressed tourists and the man in uniform. They differ in so many ways: male and female; Thai and western; sitting and standing; no visible tattoos versus lots of visible tattoos.

The contrast that I found most striking was in the general attitude of the people involved. Although the man was on duty, doing his job, he looks very relaxed and carefree. The two woman, on the other hand, are clearly on vacation, but seem to be making heavy work of it. They could be plotting an arduous journey in the sun, or perhaps they’re well and truly lost. Opting for the latter interpretation I’ve called the photo “Lost, Yaowarat Road, Bangkok.”

You’re probably going to ask me: “Was it really the contrasting subjects that prompted you to take the shot or the tattoos and bare legs of the tourists or the absurd pile of gift boxes in the background?” Well, I have to admit it was all of the above. I think psychologists call it “gestalt,” defined as: “the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world.” I’ll have more to say on this topic in later posts.

The fact is: when you go out on to the street you have to photo what’s there. You can’t rearrange reality to suit your photo or start placing friends and family in strategic positions within the frame. In this sense, your starting point has to be content rather than form.

It’s likely that you’ll be drawn to content with a singular characteristic: such as an appealing face, some outrageous clothes or someone making an unusual gesture. These singularities are fine; they can make a great photo. But when you find contrasts you’re adding a second, non-physical dimension to your work. You’re contributing your own content by inserting something dynamic: a wordless argument, a visual opposition, an unspoken dialogue. This can be much more effective than making a simple, singular statement.

From a formal viewpoint, when you introduce contrast you may (as in the example above) have the two contrasting subjects more or less side-by-side, or at least occupying separate parts of the image. This is not always necessary. The contrast can be between foreground and background subjects.

In this image, the teenagers sitting on the long bench in the background make a striking contrast to the hugging couple in the foreground. I happened to be walking past when the girl with the green backpack came bounding up to her friend and leapt on him to give him an impassioned embrace. In the photo it appears that theirs is the only act in town. The other kids sit passively in a line, mostly with their own hands clasped together, not speaking to each other (except for one who tries to chat but his friend pays him no attention).

Again, taking the photo was a gestalt experience: I was very much aware of the people in the background and somewhat thankful my camera settings — which I didn’t have time to change — did not make them too blurred. It was important to get the couple into sharp focus. They were in this position for only a split second, so timing was the key to getting the shot. I’ve called it “Pleased to See You, Colchester, UK.”

I think there were two elements of luck involved, but not in capturing the “decisive moment” which was entirely deliberate, or in seeing the contrast between the two major elements of the photo.

Once piece of luck was confining the background tree to what is probably its only proper position. If it has been directly behind the top of the man’s head it would have spoiled the shot. I lucked out again in capturing the wistful attitude of the man on the extreme left of the image. With his pale face and sunglasses he looks like he could be a fan of the late Roy Orbison (“Only the Lonely”), watching other people have fun.

I’m not suggesting you should search actively for contrasts, because you may miss plenty of other opportunities if you do so. It’s better to come across them naturally but then to react with the instantaneous response demanded by street photography. To do this you have to be prepared for them. You have to recognise them immediately and have your camera set to cope with this kind of eventuality (1/250th or 1/500th second, ISO 400 or 800, and aperture slightly stopped down — all depending on the lighting conditions).

The world is full of contrasts: rich/poor, fat/thin, dark/light, tall/short and so on. You can’t really fail to notice the obvious pairs. The art of street photography involves finding what’s not so obvious, yet is, perhaps for that very reason, more revealing and more likely to make a compelling image.

Why It’s Good to Fill the Frame in Street Photography

Frame Fill

So, Mr. Lewell, what first attracted you to a shop window full of bare legs?

That’s a bit like asking a young woman who’s just married a wealthy old man: what first attracted you to the billionaire Rupert XXXX (or whoever)? The question contains its own answer, but in both cases it may actually be wrong, or at least only partially true.

Speaking for myself, I was attracted by the way the various elements of the scene filled the picture frame right to the edges. True, the legs caught my eye, but so did the girl squatting down at the bottom left and the more distant view to the interior of the store where more people were moving around.

Far too many street photographs have dead space in the corners of their pictures.

Why am I not surprised? Because, for much of the time, the road and the sky have little visual interest. If you simply point your camera at an interesting subject, the chances are that you’ll end up taking lots of sky and lots of road. Please remember: they’re part of the picture, too.

If I get bare space (as opposed to bare legs) in the corners of the frame I have a nagging feeling that’s something’s not quite right.

Of course, like many street photographers, I have this feeling nearly every time — when one or another irritating imperfection reveals itself on close examination of the image. For example, there may be a lack of sharpness where sharpness would have been desirable. Or perhaps one part of the subject is hidden that would have looked better had it been revealed.

Yet the worst irritation is the appearance of dead space in areas surrounding the subject. I’ll do anything to avoid it.

I’m particularly fascinated by the concept of “layers,” on which I’ll have more to say as this blog develops. The above photo is a good demonstration of layers (or “planes of visual interest,” as I like to call them). In the foremost plane, the image is anchored by the curious double advert in which, hypnotically, the model’s face is repeated so that she gazes at us with four eyes instead of two.

As the image recedes, other layers cause the onlooker’s eye to “read” the photo by exploring it from one side to another. The girl with the shoulder bag is level with the point-of-sale display, so she is part of foreground and helps to balance the image. Beyond her are other women who are slightly foreshortened by the 85mm lens I was using. Black-belted sales assistants in turquoise uniforms fill the upper left of the image. There is no dead space.

The growing popularity of using layers in street photography is leading us towards more satisfying images. I am far from being their only exponent. I’m also exploring other techniques to fill the frame, not always successfully.

For example, there are many things wrong with this shot of a girl promoting a flavoured drink. For a start, it’s one of those quasi-street photographs I call “impromptu street portraits.” In other words, it’s not street photography at all, but a form of improvised portrait photography, undertaken without either the time or equipment to get it right. And I didn’t get it right.

Sun Promo

I deliberately focused on her hand, expecting her face to be in acceptably sharp “soft” focus. I think I overdid it. In any case, there’s a suspicion of dead space at the bottom right which cannot be cropped without destroying the composition. I like the fact that the woman in red is glancing in our direction; that there are some products bottom left; that the blossom takes care of the top edge and corners. But the occluded face of the man in black and the obvious difference in sharpness between the subject’s hand and her face are aspects which ruin the image.

Typically, street photographers fill dead space in the foreground with out-of-focus figures and they fill similar space in the background with buildings and street furniture. Working with wide-angle lenses they keep much of the scene in sharp focus, thus avoiding the problems of bokeh (the quality of the out-of-focus areas).

Bringing every part of the frame into play tends to create a myriad of challenges for the street photographer. But surely that’s half the fun! It’s too easy to snap isolated subjects and ignore everything around them. In the same way, if you listen only to the violin in a violin concerto you’re not really hearing the whole work. It’s more difficult to follow several musical lines at once, but also more rewarding once you’ve learned how to do it.

As Walter Pater (1839–1894), essayist and art critic, said: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” It follows that there can be more than one instrument playing in a street photo.